Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Elizabeth's Poem

Earlier today, the Times and other sources posted transcripts of Elizabeth Alexander's beautiful inaugural poem, but I hadn't till just now seen it with its lines and stanzas as the poet intended them. It's a fine example of the way a well-placed line and a shapely stanza energizes and formalizes plain speech; the formal choices here emphasize the clarity,dignity and grace of Alexander's language. Here it is:


Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. A chapbook edition of Praise Song for the Day will be published on February 6, 2009.


Andrew Shields said...

Thanks for posting this, Mark. I quickly skimmed the end-words, and I am especially taken by the words at the ends of the stanzas: speaking, tongues, repair, voice, begin, reconsider, side, see, bridges, of, tables, love, grievance, cusp, light.

Only "of" does not do special work here!

[Ironic word verification word: divas.]

Unknown said...


Nancy Devine said...

nice to see the line breaks and the stanzas. thanks for this post.

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting the poem the way it's mean't to look on the page; like Andrew, I'd be paying attention to the end-words too. I thought it was a shame to see on the TV so many of the crowds leaving as EA was reading her poem...

Susan Laughter Meyers said...

Thanks, Mark. The poem's wonderful repetition and rhythms--its accumulations along the way--are served well by the form that Elizabeth Alexander gave it. She was given a hard task but rose to the occasion. Brava!

artistb said...

My favorite word in Elizabeth's poem is noise. Thanks Andrew for pointing out the end-words. Wouldn't it be charming if each wave of noise we are confronted with ended in a signifying word as do the stanza breaks?

Collin Kelley said...

Thanks for posting this version, Mark. I'd only seen the transcript version in the NYT.

Nancy Simpson said...

I am a long time practicing poet. I heard Elizabeth Alexander read the poem. It moved me.

Although I've searched, I've only had access to the butchered NYT copy and other questionable versions.

Mark, I'll always wonder how you got a copy of the original?

shoppista said...

Lovely. Thanks for posting this. What a perfect poem for beginnings -- I love the way the poem grounds beginning in the work of the past and the ongoing work of the present (very like "Musee des Beaux Arts" and its grounding of suffering in the larger unremarkable doings of the world -- but more hopeful).

And a great poem, with its emphasis on words ("we encounter each other in words") for, finally -- it's been a long time!! -- a president who understands the importance of words.

Kelly Thompson said...

Mark - I also appreciate the posting of Alexander's Inaugural poem. It is a treat to see it on the page after hearing it first and in the context of yesterday's historic event.

In the poet's reading, I heard common sense, a down to earth presence in the words and voice, a simple (but not simplistic) note without pretension. I heard a call to love that echoed the essence of a particular place in history, a crossroads in which America stands, and I heard not religion, but a voice that reached past the noise of all our individual affiliations or leanings, the noise of difference and said, "We are here together."

Seeing her words on paper with its line breaks and stanzas gave me the opportunity to go even further into the experience of yesterday.

Thank you.

jillypoet said...

I hope I'm not repeating myself, I tried to leave a comment and something weird happened... I just wanted to add my thanks for posting this poem! I really wanted to see the line breaks and stanzas.

There was a horrible review/comments in the UK Guardian. Just awful.

A.H. said...

There seems to be differing response to this: inevitable, in many ways. The debate is about a simple problem. The press versions look a mess and these rob the poem of its structure. The press reduces the poem to prose, not the poet. Here, the poem on the page looks elegant, in no way a mess. It has the precision of HD's three line stanza. Beautiful. But, like HD, this is almost private, meditative verse, not public oratory. When read, the elegance disappears. The declaimers wanted something louder, a real "praise song", something approaching incantation. I think there is almost glee this side of the Pond that Obama ended up with Andrew Motion type stuff. But did he? Writers have delighted in the dead metaphors applied to a living moment. Sadly, these miss the beauty of this plain language, its echoes of Dante's "Common Tongue" and a roadway not into Hell, but into the possibilities of a new language for a new New World. Oh, if only people would read and see what was truly done in the name of truth and simplicity.

Sam Poet said...

So I got here by following a link from reading the transcript version of this poem on the Guardian, and someone there was trashing this poem, but I really see nothing to trash. I agree the poet's reading left something to be desired, and the poem almost leaves something to be desired, but it still is lovely and sums up the occasion. That's what happens when you write an Occasional Poem, it tends to have less mystery and urgency and rawness of other forms of poetry, and instead opts to put beautiful language to a commemorative event. I think Alexander does a fine job of this type of poem, and thank you, Mark DOty, for posting it where I can read it how it is meant to be read!

Coirí Filíochta said...

The Guardian writer trashing it, is academic poet Carol Rumens, who teaches at Bangor university in Wales and hosts the poem of the week series, where she selects a poem she likes and introduces it, often using the space for log rolling her pals.

She is entitled to her opinion, but there's more than a whiff of disingenuousness in her post, as she has posted poems which seem no different from this in terms of inventiveness and originality, waxing how prophetic and otherworldly they are.

They are both women of a similar age, both in academia, though I think Rumen's in the less prestigious grove and (going on her appearance) the senior of the two women by a few years. The obvious inference to draw is simple enough to need no explicit articulation.

Amergin, the Irish equivalent of Homer, has a a 7C text attributed to him, which was first translated in 1983, and which is a very important and all but unknown document detailing - from the point of view of a 7C Old Irish bard - exactly what the poetic gift is and how it works.

The above version the link leads to, was translated by ogham scholar Erynn Laurie Rowan from Oregan.

Whoever wrote it, had (say) 1000 years of druids behind him or her, and 1000 filidh ahead of them, and it has no title, (i am guessing), because it needed none as it was the first poem the grade one fochloc (sapling) was given at their first day at bard school. which were the poet-training centres that ran for 1300 years until the 17C, and produced a literate poetic tradition that ran for 2.5 times the length of the current modern English one which began with the Tudors. One which is now all but forgotten by most poets. This text is a/the touchstone text of the whole bardic enterprise.

It is found in a 15C Harleian (Robert Harley, 1st earl of Oxford) manuscript 3.18, one of the Irish legal codices now at Trinity College, with the identification tag: MS 1337.

There are four joys detailed in it, which along with a corresponding four sorrows, and one of the four primary joys a poet can experience is:

"the joy of health untroubled by the abundance of goading when a person takes up the prosperity of bardcraft" - which I think applies here.

Coirí Filíochta said...

This is Rumen's reading her poem: Poetry at the Seren Press youtube site, recorded - by the looks of it - in her front living room, to an audience of none or one camera person, the paisley green and cream curtains, firmly closed, billowing in the artificail breeze from the standing fan, and note her first line:

Because the mouth has been known to tell lies

Because we live with two terrors
being looked at

not being looked at

She reads like someone auditioning for a spot at church, or to an audience of three year olds.


press - is the word verification

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this Mark! Elizabeth wrote our Cave Canem list serve and also asked for this to appear at the end of each correct version with the RIGHT stanzas and line breaks for her poet (and thanks again for doing this!) Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander. All rights reserved. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota. A chapbook edition of Praise Song for the Day will be published on February 6, 2009.

Mark Doty said...

Thanks to all for the intriguing commentary here. Background Artist, that ancient text is entirely intriguing, and the notion of the three cauldrons seems like such a useful means of conceptualizing the development of a poet. And may we all remain "untroubled by the abundance of goading when a person takes up the prosperity of bardcraft" -- entirely true, nine centuries later.

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Thanks for posting the correct formatted version of the poem. I liked the poem when I heard it, and, later, read the transcript version. But, the true form is stronger, certainly to the eye.

Rochelle said...

I think part of the problem is hearing the poem after Obama's speech--he's a tough act to follow.

Coirí Filíochta said...

Hello Mark and fellow fabulists.

There definitley seems to be a noticable difference in how the American and the brit poet-bloggers have responded to this poem.

I noticed that nearly all the british based poet bloggers, made no comment on the election campaign, and when he got in, several put up cordial notices of congratulation. There was only myself and Todd Swift who I knew of, cheerleading for the bloke, and even he predicted McCain would get it.

I didn't predict who would get it, just hoped it would go to Obama, because no matter how much hot air gets gassed in the media about fairness, tolerance and diversity, it is always the rich white people who seem to be setting themselves up as arbiters of what constitutes the right do.

Living in a Republic (of ireland), the child of Irish immigrants, who was reared in the (united) Kingdom, and living there most my life until five years ago; it is only from this distance I have managed to disentangle the subtle societal threads which dilineate the psychological superstructure underpinning British Identity, founded on forces so nuanced and complex, contextualising and clarifying them, is intellectually taxing and a terrific test of the imagination, because the basics of state in Britain, are based on a fundamental unfairness and inherently hereditary bent, because the head of state, defender of faith, religious leader and monarch to boot, is born to the job and a living remnant of imperial fuedalistic culture and the Bush cronies desperately changing tack now the black guys in, sold out their principles when Tony arrived as the chief plastic socialist pretending to speak for the misters and misses.

They made a lot of noise about changing the fundamental imbalance that results in Highness and a strict code of class, knowing one's place from the awf, by means means of Title, a lottery of mister to monarch, which of course, plays no part in how a citizen views themself, how they feel about being British and a citizen birthed into a set up which says, be the loyal supporter of one very privilged family on lottery sized state benifits whose genes make them a better breed of person than you mister, awfully decent people who the 60 million British people not born as a Highness, can look to for an example of how to feel good about themselves. Aspire to being Lord and Highness, because of one's breeding.

At a stroke, Obama has rendered these people, see through, which can only be for the good.


The cauldron text Mark, when I first clapped eyes on it, thought it cannot be, as it purports to answer that age old question and cause of poetry wars between the arties since the first soneteers began dabbling in the then new verse techniques, sucking up to old Copper Nose Henry V111 and setting themselves up a tradition, ironically at the same time as extinquishing the ancient bardic tradition that was 1200 years in print when the new kids on the blocl, first appropriated Greek myth as their own model, going as far as to beleive Geoffrey of Monmouth's invention that the Brits all came out of Brutus, the grandson of Achilles, faking it and dismissing the real deal beneath their noses, looking down 'em, the plassies..

I asked about for 18 months after finding it, online at mainly British based poet chat gaffes, and in person in Dublin, at book launches, poetry readings and the like, thinking, of course the higher ups will have knowledge of it. But few did, only the Irish language poets Gabriel Rosenstock and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, who confirmed my hunch, that it was the principle text the bard encountered when beginning their first of 12 years training one undertook in that filidh (poets) tradition to become the fully finsihed ollamh/poetry professor, after going through seven grades, memorising the 350 tales in the corpus, of which 200 survive, learning to compose in the most complex meters to have ever existed, and of which next to nothing is known about by our colleagues on the contemporary love bus.

The text refers to "enobling non nobles" and is the key to unlocking the well within. Seigas Well it refers to, is the omphalos of Irish myth, surrounded by nine hazel trees, each nut containing all poetic wisdom, which the elusive salmon of wisdom feed on, and if caught, as in the Finn McCool myth, and its flesh eaten, then the lucky fish finder would get the gen second hand. A bit like the Garden of Eden myth, but without the hell and damntation as Irish society was not touched by the Roman mind and the pagan past did not have the penal concept on which Rome founded itself, much as good ole Goerge was trying to get on the go. All this do wrong, get punished caper, with the law enforcers exempt of course, as someone's gotta do the punishing, right?

You are the first person I have met in print, to have respnded to this text positively. Most pro poets in the UK I have dueted with, their silence when presneted with this, is the most notable thing. Ignore it, and maybe it will cease to exist kind of logic, I thought. And as the mind of a bluffer is mixed and mired in the constitution from which it forms out from, so I thought, some imperial undertow watermarking us, was in play manifesting itself in the silence. The search for status in the pecking order, and being unknown, a newb on the block, armed with this document, all it drew was snooty blanks and such - one liners designed to make us feel crap, to stop us from performing further our dance in print, the usual poet-jackals round the dried up well kinda fingz, until..until this mo in the here and now, Obama and another of the Joys Amergin mentions - that of *fitting poetic completion* which occurs at the finish of creating some artefact with which we are pleased, the real winner of the Eliot and myself, an unknown bluffer overlooked because, because, it's only rock and roll yer know, said John to Paul, scousers who made the modern planet, happen as it is now, with Bono the good, whose native god is Dagda, meaning the good god, father of the Tuatha Dannan, the fey, faery folk and penultimate of five races of mythic gods who make up Irish myth one had to know to be a spacer in the auld tradition.

Only practicing, thanks for the space which allowed this rant..

gra agus siochain

A.H. said...

"which is a very important and all but unknown document".

The cauldron text is a well-know piece of hermetica, in occult circles, in New Age literature, and to poets belonging to the Graves-Raine school of spirit-based poetry. I doubt that Rumens' criticism of the Alexander poem comes from jealousy, as suggested by Background Artist...there is no "obvious inference" to be drawn.
Kevin/Desmond/Swords' comments on Rumens are to use his own words "disingenuous" since his own style of reading (Youtube) is hardly prophetic and much like hers.
At which point, the real relevant issue emerges: the relationship between poem on the page and the poem as spoken voice. It is interesting that Elizabeth Alexander looked at the work of Ted Hughes as she approached the composition of her Obama poem. He was an eloquent reader of poetry.

Coirí Filíochta said...

Hi Eshu.

Sorry about that, when I said the cauldron text is unknown, I should have made it clear, that it is all but unknown to most ditty and pome makers.

The cauldron piece, surely, whilst being what you say it is, this is its secondary contex?

Its original placing belongs as a cornerstone text of the bardic tradition, (my research area) rather then as a mix and match piece in the self-made magical doctrine of weekend hippies?

Perhaps Carol isn't jealous it wasn't her reading in front of millions, but the reason I wanted to start a bit of aggro on it, is that on her potw spot, she often introduces duff texts and talks them up as though they were holy objects capable of beaming us up to the mothership.

Reading your blog, I see you are interested in the Muse. My own take on it, using the cauldron text as the creative guider, is that the Muse is God or Creation principle, the spirit if you like, and that rather than male or female, it is s/he, androgynous.

Rabbi Mark Sameth, who spent 20 years sifting through the Torah bible, in an article in the main rabbi rag, argues that the Jewish Tetragrammaton -- four-letter Hebrew name for God, thought to be unpronounceable since the year 70, when read in reverse, makes the sounds of the Hebrew words for "he" and "she"


It was the Greeks I think, and certainly Yeats, you said that our inner daemon is our opposite-self, and so for a hetrosexual woman their daemon is male and vice versa. I know when I write love poetry, that in my mind I have a formless s/he who is a bit more male than female, and it is this energy I address, in for example:


Underneath it all
we talk
over and above what is

so why not stay a while
and let me dream
of life with you?

I will not make a hollow pledge
of empty words
which promise something
I can’t give:

the wind
the sea
or starlight's shimmer
on your hair.

The bond I undertake to seek
exchanges comforts
found from understanding
and being understood -

when I gaze upon your form
I see emotion as a mirror

you, the one love
who will never truly stand
before me.

Your flesh can be only touched
in dreams
when reality comes alive
in epic tales,
played out nightly

or in that half snooze state
I sometimes get to fool around in;

a world where my desire for you can be indulged.

Thanks for taking an interest in my work. What about you, is there anywhere we can have a gawp at you weaving your gob in a live setting, please anonymous Kathleen you teasy wooer

gra agus siochain

Segun said...

Thanks for this Mark. The poem reads so beautifully off the page. Elizabeth did not read it particularly well, but then she is not a performance poet, is she? I think myself that she was ever so slightly nervous too. As any poet would be reciting before millions in the flesh and billions worldwide!

Miles Ladin said...

thanks for posting this.
Her poem seems much more powerful as written words...I couldn't get into her oration of the poem and in general I respond to words on a page.
Not sure why this is...but I think you hit on it when you intro'd the poem. ML

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